It’s Time for Wristwatches to Get Smarter

Even as I argue for larger screens on popular smartphones, some manufacturers are looking to leverage smaller displays that help navigate a barrage of daily data. We first saw the inPulse watch in late 2009, but the device and its 1.3-inch screen now supports Google Android phones (s goog) in addition to BlackBerry (s rimm) handsets. Similar to Sony Ericsson’s (s sne) (s eric) LiveView, the $149 inPulse watch pairs with a phone over Bluetooth and displays high priority data such as text messages, calendar events, email, and instant caller ID information.


While I like the idea of notifications in a wristwatch, the user interface and interaction can be a challenge. The inPulse uses a single button system, which is fairly limiting. Sony Ericsson’s LiveView appears to offer more flexibility by adding a touch-sensitive bezel to a pair of hardware buttons. And although Apple’s (s aapl) latest iPod Nano isn’t marketed as a watch, it does tell time and there are a number of watch-bands that accept the Nano with its full touchscreen. The TikTok and LunaTik bands may be the most prominently known choices due to raising more than $941,000 in funding through individual donations via Kickstarter. Even so, controlling any of these “smart watches” are still constrained by the small screen, causing me to wonder if voice controls are in the future for such timepieces.

What makes these devices appealing, however, is the potential for new mobile development platforms and applications. Apple, for example, could expand its current programming tools to support apps on the Nano. The LiveView watch works specifically with Android phones, so developers can leverage Google’s SDK and add Live View compatibility into mobile apps. And the inPulse team provides API documentation for programmers, or even talented hobbyists, to create their own apps using Java. The inPulse watch itself can be modified using C programming and would-be hackers can create or test code by using a freely available inPulse watch simulator. This opens up a world of possibilities. For example, the Nano stores and plays local music, but both the LiveView and inPulse have apps that support remote control of music playback on a paired phone.

The entire opportunity for smarter watches reminds me of the ill-fated Microsoft SPOT (s msft) watches that launched in 2004. Yes, I bought one and thought that watch with connectivity — these used FM radio waves — was the wave of the future. But soon after, smartphones with always-on mobile broadband connections trumped the limited purpose watches with their MSN Direct service. However, Microsoft’s SPOT concept was a good one: quick bits of information on a small, wearable display definitely added value when I had the service and supported hardware.

Perhaps such smart watches were ahead of their time seven years ago. With the advances in display technology, mobile software platforms and cellular connectivity, it might be time for intelligent timepieces to make a comeback.

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